How The BJP Is Winning Over Skeptics
NEW DELHI: At a time when they should be gearing for larger battles, are a section of India’s liberals experiencing self-doubt? Yes, if the questions old and close friends – none of whom are Narendra Modi worshippers, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)/ Sangh sympathizers or upper middle class bubble dwellers by any stretch – have asked of me in the recent past are anything to go by.
‘How have you directly, as in personally, been affected?’ I have been asked twice by different individuals. The first time in mid-November 2016 when I had argued about how ruinous – and not merely inconveniencing – demonetization was proving; the second time in the late afternoon of March 11 2017 when I worried how far an emboldened Hindutva Brigade would go after the BJP’s huge win in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly elections. Later on March 11 2017, a message exchange with a third friend ended with another poser: ‘You think we are missing something that is in plain view of everybody else?’
Now that there is some consensus that demonetization was more of a (successful) political maneuver than the economic remedy it was originally touted as, and the early days of Yogi Adityanath’s UP chief ministership have seen precisely the kind of things one feared, it is perhaps time to reflect on what prompted the above questions in the first place. The answers tell us how - and why - the BJP propaganda on demonetization, minority appeasement and vikas (as also nationalism and freedom of expression) has become tougher for some liberals to dismiss outright.
Clearly, my questioners weren’t too convinced about anti-demonetization stances and found worries about increased toxicity following the BJP’s UP victory premature. But it was more than that. They were not wondering whether the criticism was legitimate – for that could have been argued based on their own observations, readings and interpretations – but whether the critic was biased. In asking whether one had been affected at a personal level or wondering whether something blatantly obvious to others had escaped our attention, they were trying to understand whether my/ our critical assessments reflected real issues of real people or was after some sort of a liberal fashion.
Which is a marker of how successful the ruling dispensation has been in selling its narratives. Forget BJP supporters and Modi fans, it has made even a section of BJP and Modi skeptics pause and reflect on whether anti-BJP, anti-Modi positions are genuine and consistent with ground reality or merely reflect the chatterati’s bias or paranoia.
Even if one were to suspend disbelief and say that the lack of spine among a section of the mainstream media, celebrity and India Inc hasn’t played a part in the brainwashing, there could be three related reasons why the BJP propaganda on key issues has managed to sow doubt among a section of non-believers.
One: the larger narrative is delivered from a nationalist plank. Every policy option that the BJP exercises, whether demonetization or surgical strikes, and every controversial move it backs, whether it is a crackdown on campus dissent or vigilante action in the name of cow or women’s protection, is, first and foremost, rationalized and packaged as furthering national interest or protecting Indian culture or aimed at restoring the nation’s ancient glory.
These unexceptionable, even laudable, objects make the bitterest of BJP’s prescriptions palatable and helps it dismiss alternate positions as anti-national, equate Indian culture with Hindu culture and get away with questionable interpretations of what constitutes national interest. The skeptic might not be convinced the first time or the second or the third but at some point the spin becomes difficult to ignore.
Two: Modi’s image of the outsider-chaiwallah disrupting power equations in Lutyens’ Delhi and beyond and the BJP’s constant harping on its authentic Indian credentials helps it paint its baiters as representative of the traditional anglicized, ivory-tower dwelling elite which finds itself marginalized under a new dispensation.
Any stance that clashes with the BJP’s – whether Amartya Sen’s on demonetization or Fali Nariman’s on Adityanath’s appointment or that of several respected academics on the deteriorating environment in the university campuses - therefore gets dubbed elitist, motivated or arising out of frustration. That the leader of the largest opposition party fills the marginalized elite description (in popular perception at least) only benefits the BJP’s argument.
More than anything else, it the BJP’s repeated triumphs in local and assembly elections that cements the image of its critics as rootless and worse. ‘If the Modi sarkar isn’t doing much good, how does it receive the kind of electoral endorsement it does time and again?’ is the uncomfortable question that recurs .
Elections may be one aspect of democratic practice and election outcomes themselves may be influenced by a range of factors – including the state of the opposition, tactics deployed by contesting parties, caste coalitions that evolve and, not to forget, how cunningly communal sentiments are evoked – but the clouding effect of the BJP’s electoral performances on liberal minds remains undeniable.
Three: An astute reading of emerging media habits has helped the BJP overwhelm audiences with compelling, easily consumable content. Aware that television and social media have become a major, if not the principal, source of information and that audience attention spans and patience for poring over nuanced argument is low, the BJP has systematically worked on headline grabbing, bullet-pointed, image-driven content to sell its position.
Rarely does an hour pass without television tickers, WhatsApp messages and FaceBook and Twitter feeds not relaying something flattering about the BJP and Modi agenda. That much of this content comes not from official sources but seemingly neutral platforms devoted to independent news, nation building, army welfare, political satire, etc,., adds to its credibility. The other view, in contrast, is remarkably less visible. Such ‘saturation’ of all but the patience-taxing print media for a continued period of time, again, becomes difficult to overlook. ‘It can’t all be a misinformation campaign, can it?,’ one is likely to begin wondering at some point.
How can these tactics be neutralized? Things that have left the BJP propaganda machine rattled in the recent past – Gurmehar Kaur’s assertion, Border Security Force jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav’s lament or, more generally, the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) initial social media pitch (a certain jadedness has set in lately) - offer clues.
The AAP’s initial pitch drew much of its punch from aggressive and smart use of the TV and social media and Gurmehar and Tej Bahadur’s contrarian words carried weight because they were seen as earnest individuals standing up for a worthy cause. These, then, underline the need for imaginative and sustained contestation of narratives on what constitutes nationalism and Indian-ness and harnessing the voices of common folk in the endeavor. Most importantly, the entire endeavor needs an anchoring force that creatively marshals and propagates arguments. Else, as happened in 1980s Bollywood, loud and incessant din will end up getting passed off as music.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer with an interest in politics, cricket and cinema.)